Beyond “Real Beauty”: On Body Image and Being Vulnerable

I struggle with my body image. This is not a unique situation, and this is by no means a unique account.

As a female person in the world, it is an unavoidable struggle.

And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m with my appearance (because “obsessed”, as I perceive it, sits at the extreme end of the spectrum, manifesting as disturbances and disorders and body image dysmorphia), I would say that, like any other typical woman, I come face-to-face with negative thoughts about my body

It was probably around sixth grade when I last remember being unconcerned about my body image. But then, without any warning, the beginnings of puberty started, and it was like my body had abruptly turned on me.

My breasts grew suddenly and lopsidedly, as if overnight. In fact, my entire body seemed to suddenly fill out overnight, quickly becoming a tapestry of purple stretch marks.

I developed terrible acne, so bad that our family doctor prescribed Tetracycline and some kind of topical treatment that looked like a bingo dauber and made my eyes water.

I was desperately embarrassed of my skin, intensified by the fact that a younger student once asked me why I had so many pimples (this moment of shame rivalled only by the time I cut off all my hair in tenth grade and was mistaken in a mall for somebody’s husband).

I can’t say whether the antibiotics or topical solvent (or Clearasil pads or Oxy 5 ) I used daily made any difference. I think I eventually just grew out of the worst of it as my hormones finally stabilized (though, in my mid-30s, I’m suffering a brand new wave of hormonal acne that is triggering all the same insecurities as those of my teenagedom).

As far as my weight, I was always a big-boned child. Not fat, but definitely sturdy.

My mom was a vegetarian for as far back as I can remember. Being vegetarian was a lot more unusual in the 90s, and we ate our fair share of creamed spinach and curried lentils and carob brownies. Which isn’t to say she didn’t occasionally buy us Pop-Tarts and Kraft Dinner and instant iced-tea (which we’d scoop into our glasses so liberally, there’d always be a film of tart syrup waiting at the bottom), but overall, we were raised primarily on home-cooked meals with probably a better awareness of proper nutrition than most other kids our age.

Despite inheriting the sturdy frame of my European ancestors, the fact I ate healthy in my youth (if you don’t count the times we raided Dad’s workshop for corner store change) meant my weight never fluctuated too drastically.

By the time I made it to university, however, the story (and the circumstances) changed. For one, I had the freedom to buy whatever food I wanted. One of my first-ever grocery shops as an “adult” included a box of Wagon Wheel cookies. I don’t even like Wagon Wheels, for the record, and I certainly haven’t eaten one since.

I knew very little about how to cook. When I lived at home, I loved spending hours in the kitchen whipping up elaborate meals and desserts (homemade pizza crust, Nanaimo bars, lemon meringue pie), but I didn’t have the slightest idea how to make something as straightforward as steamed rice or a hard boiled egg.

R. and I moved in together after my first year (his second) of university. That summer we lived on a hearty diet of Lipton Sidekicks, 7–11 nachos and the personal-size pepperoni pizzas he brought home from his delivery shift. If the budget afforded, we’d splurge on a batch of Hamburger Helper or Shake ’N’ Bake chicken (foods I’d never experienced in childhood, and so were appealing to me in their exotic-ness). I don’t recall vegetables playing any role in my diet at the time, save for the occasional can of corn.

Unsurprisingly, I began to gain weight. Not, like, a ton of weight, but enough that I distinctly recall going up a size and being extremely self-conscious about the roundness of my stomach.

Later, in 2008, when I began fumbling my way through the grown-up workforce, I started to develop anxiety. I’d always experienced some level of anxiety, mind you, but this time it was intensifying into an obsessive kind of hypochondria. It’s a separate story that I will share shortly enough, but what matters here is that it ultimately led to my being prescribed antidepressant drugs, the first being the notorious Paxil and its reputation for weight gain.

And gain weight I did. To be fair, while my cooking skills were improving, I still also ate a significant amount of garbagey foods. Despite having a kitchen-savvy mom, it took me, in retrospect, a long time to figure out how to nourish myself properly.

So I continued to gain weight and to feel shittier and shittier about the way my body looked and felt. I was my highest weight of 205 pounds when R. proposed to me. Bless his soul for loving me at a time when I felt the least loving towards myself. And because I’ve established by now that I’m a walking cliché, it’s no surprise that the goal of our future wedding was what finally motivated me to make some conscious lifestyle changes.

Switching medications helped. That, and I began to walk our dog around the neighbourhood every single day. It was January, so naturally the perfect time to create new resolutions. I mounted a white board calendar on the wall of our office and determined to make physical activity my new habit. 30 days is all it would take, I told myself.

And I did it. I took the pup for a walk around the neighbourhood every day for a month, until it became my new routine. My weight slowly decreased. I was no waif, to be sure, but I felt vibrant and healthy for the first time in ages. I was inspired to continually seek ways to improve my overall physical and mental health, marking the start of my journey towards wellness.

Still, it’s been a struggle to maintain consistency, and though never as drastic as the days of Paxil, my weight’s gone up and down in the eight years since we got married.

In 2015 I opted for a militant approach. I joined a boot camp and subjected myself to the regular misery of burpees while religiously counting my calories. I felt fierce and strong, but unbalanced by the level of discipline this lifestyle required. While I couldn’t maintain both it and my sanity, I appreciated how much the experience enriched my awareness of what feels good for my body.

The following year I began an herbal apprenticeship program. Herbs and other forms of natural healing served a pivotal role for me in navigating the intricacies of anxiety, and at that point, it had become important to pursue the path further.

While I had, by this time, mastered cooking pretty darn well (if I do say so), my foray into herbalism was like an awakening. The more I learned, the more my diet shifted.

The ubiquitous quote, “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food” took on a brand new meeting. I learned how to properly nourish and support my body and, as a result, it began to change for the better.

The details of my diet are inconsequential, for the most part. Just because I’ve learned what kinds of foods work well for me and my unique constitution doesn’t mean they’ll work for anyone else’s. In fact, one of my biggest-ever grievances is when people contest which foods are healthiest. My opinion is that so long as a diet encompasses healthy, wholesome, unprocessed foods intended to support optimal health, then there’s simply no need to argue about the particulars.

So here I am now, possibly the healthiest I’ve been in my entire life, while I continue to struggle with my body image as much as ever.

I know now how to eat healthy, and I follow through on that knowledge for the most part, but I still love sweets and carbs and weekend glasses of wine. My food-related guilt might be even worse now that I know how detrimental these transgressions are to my overall wellness. My mind is a perpetual battle of knowing better and “fuck it, who cares”.

Despite being the lowest weight of my adult life, I continually feel as self-conscious about my body as I did at my peak of 205 pounds.

On a recent trip to Mexico, I spent the first few days in my swimsuit trying to strategically hide my belly with a “casually” draped arm or ensure at least one article of clothing stayed on so as to buffer the level of exposure. I gave up this effort by day three because there’s something about 30-degree weather and endless mojitos that takes away the caring, but what shocked me most is when I saw, after the fact, a photo of myself in a swimsuit. Despite feeling bloated and self-conscious when the photo was taken, I looked alright. Hell, I looked I had this preconceived image of how I appeared stamped on my mind, and yet the reality of it didn’t match my perception.

This fact makes me sad. As women, we are conditioned to be unkind to ourselves on a regular basis because we allow ourselves to believe we’re less than what we are.

Worse, we regularly compare ourselves to others we believe are better.

As a teenager in the 90s, it was television and magazines that were primarily responsible for influencing how I felt about myself. Nowadays, social media seems to be the dominant culprit.

In spite of delivering a steady stream of unattainable ideals to impressionable young minds, the content delivered by the television and magazines of the 90s at least always felt to some degree removed from day-to-day life.

On the contrary, the comparison gleaned from social media feels intimate, threatening even. It’s not just models and celebrities showcasing their picture-perfect lives, it’s your classmate, your coworker, the girl next door. The pressure to live up feels all too real.

My friend’s daughter is in the eleventh grade. On any given day, her nails are lacquered, her lashes are stacked and her hair is straightened to within an inch of its life. Comparatively, my eleventh-grade self was summed up by a failed pixie cut and over-plucked eyebrows.

The level of perfection exhibited by my friend’s daughter is, scarily, the new norm. When I asked my friend how her daughter learned to do her make-up so flawlessly (when I, at her age, had never even attempted eyeliner), she said, “She watches YouTube. They all do. It’s how they learn.”

I mean, high school back in the day was hell, but I can’t even fathom how I’d manage in this modern-day climate of carefully-crafted precision.

Though as I’ve already articulated, being an adult doesn’t make me immune to this culture of comparison.

As conscious as I try to be in filtering the content of my social media feeds to convey only the things that are truly relevant for me, this sense of inadequacy can seep into any and all realms, whether I like it or not.

My interest in herbalism means most of the people I follow are herbalists or plant lovers of some form or another. You’d think this’d be relatively benign territory, but when it comes to self-image, you’d be wrong: “Look at her flowy hair and flawless skin and boho-chic blouses. That’s what a real herbalist looks like, all dreamy perfection without an ounce of effort. I’ll never be that thin/that radiant/that fashionably experimental. Why did I even buy that stupid hat, it’s not like I ever have the guts to wear it. I’ll never look as good or convincing as she does, anyhow. I feel like I failure. I’m a wannabe and a fraud.”

This steady stream of negative self-talk can be applied to anyone whose appearance, talents or skills I long to manifest in my own life. (The less connected I feel to my own sense of authenticity and purpose, the meaner the dialogue becomes.)

Though, for as much as carefully-curated perfection seems to saturate social media, regardless of the content, it is encouraging to see women out there boldly defying ideals of beauty and perfection.

A woman I follow on Instagram regularly posts photos and stories of her ultra-curvy body, reflecting on her journey of learning to embrace it. She’s someone I’ve met in real life — not a model, celebrity or influencer of any type — and I think that’s what I admire about her the most.

Unlike the carefully-architectured campaigns created by beauty giants like Dove and Gillette portraying “real women” with whom we’re meant to identify (eye roll), there’s something truly inspiring in witnessing someone you know in real life taking a stance on beauty ideals.

Because she’s willing to show her vulnerable side, and to acknowledge that it’s one hell of a battle.

“It’s hard always embracing my persona as the thick girl,” she recently posted in her stories, “when I feel so shitty about my body sometimes.”

When a local swimwear company first debuted a few years ago, their branding was built entirely on photographing real people modelling their swimsuits. Every type, shape and size of person you can imagine.

It was brilliant, and not in a contrived, “Real Beauty” campaign kind of way. It was brilliant because normal people had chosen to be vulnerable. Their vulnerability was, and continues to be, an inspiration.

Vulnerability is real and honest and right where the true sense of empowerment lies. It’s the understanding that when it comes to our body image and feelings of self-worth, every one of us is swimming an upstream battle.

Vulnerability breeds compassion.

Compassion — for ourselves and for each other — is how we win the fight.

I see you, girl. And I’ve got you.

Written by

“We’re all mad here.” Just another 30-something elder millennial writing from the heart about whatever. Oversharing is my specialty.

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